The coronavirus pandemic is stymieing the New York City Housing Authority’s long struggle to clean all the toxic mold infesting public housing, a watchdog for 400,000 public housing tenants charges.

Cesar de Castro, a Manhattan attorney appointed as NYCHA tenant ombudsperson as part of a 2013 court settlement, oversees a new call center that fields mold complaints. He acts independently of the housing authority and has the power to expedite repairs.

The Ombudsperson Call Center (OCC) has been rolled out over the last few months from borough to borough, reaching 175,000 tenants in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx as of last week. By July 1, it will extend into Brooklyn and cover another 225,000 NYCHA tenants.

But NYCHA has not been able to keep up with the calls — and thousands of residents are unaware of the help line’s existence, de Castro revealed in a letter sent last week to the judge overseeing the case. He predicts that once tenants get wise, repair requests will skyrocket.

And with the arrival of COVID-19, living conditions that were already deteriorating got even worse, he contends.

In writing to Manhattan Federal Judge William Pauley, de Castro cited an “unprecedented disruption of NYCHA operations,” revealing that “staffing and vendor shortages plagued NYCHA following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the state of emergency.”

People wear protective masks in the Marcy Houses, April 8, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The virus also took the life of Steven Edwards, the lead attorney for Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, the housing advocacy group that worked out the mold settlement in December 2013. The group has been instrumental in making sure NYCHA lives up to its promises. 

COVID’s biggest threat to public housing tenants has been the hammer blow it has dealt to NYCHA’s finances, leading to a hiring freeze that de Castro warned will stop the promised mold cleanup.

De Castro found that NYCHA does not have nearly enough carpenters, plumbers and plasterers to address what are often complex mold-related repairs. Work orders, he said, are now backlogged by six to eight weeks.

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, NYCHA has been forced to limit repairs to apartments in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. The authority tried to address the problem by allowing tenants to send in videos of their mold problems, but the repair backup persists.

So far, most tenants appear to have no idea about the ombudsperson’s role.

“In early outreach efforts, the independence of the OCC Ombudsperson was not emphasized,” he wrote. As a result, tenants were “completely unaware of its existence, confused regarding its connection to NYCHA, and/or suspicious whether the OCC could effectively help them.”

Hiring Freeze

By June 1, the call center was available to 175,000 tenants. But the ombudsperson had assisted only 600 households and resolved only 250 complaints “to the satisfaction of residents,” he wrote.

Once tenants become aware of the call center and are clear about the ombudsperson’s independence from NYCHA, de Castro expects the floodgates to open and repair requests to pour in. At the moment, he says, NYCHA’s Mold Remediation Unit (MRU) is not up to the task.

“The MRU is not currently built to handle the volume that we expect when the OCC is operational throughout the entire NYCHA portfolio, residents are adequately informed of the OCC and when COVID-19 work restrictions are lifted,” he wrote.

De Castro warned that NYCHA needs to immediately hire enough workers to handle the expected spike — but NYCHA has told him there can be no new hires until the pandemic passes.

On Thursday, the Rev. Getulio Cruz, a leader with housing advocacy nonprofit Metro IAF, noted that mold exacerbates asthma, a risk factor for COVID-19. Cruz made it clear that NYCHA needs to get its act together quickly.

“Just as New York City hired 1,700 contact tracers to help reopen the city, NYCHA must immediately hire the staff they need to effectively communicate with tenants and resolve mold and leak issues,” Cruz stated. “When (calls about) leaks and mold get to the OCC, NYCHA really fixes them.”

A hearing on the mold call center status is set for Tuesday before Pauley.

A NYCHA spokesperson declined comment Thursday.